Family Portrait in the Interior
The Prince and The Beggar
Series of objects (photographs, acrylyc glass), site specific installtion
4 photographs, site specific installation
4 photographs, site specific installation
7 photographs, single-channel video, 8'
AES+F’s Othello. Asphyxiophilia, a series of photographs and a video work, takes its title from the Shakespeare tragedy of the same name, which portrays the intimate consequences of racial, social, and civilizational conflict, wherein Othello, a noble Moor of Ottoman descent, murders his beloved Venetian bride, Desdemona, in a fit of rage. However, in AES+F’s reinterpretation, the anti-hero is no longer the active purveyor of the gaze, but the passive object of sexual scopic satisfaction—no longer master of his own whims, but slave to the destructive desires of his female counterpart, played by iconic Russian TV star Arina Sharapova. Like the Elizabethan drama, the artists’ mise-en-scene presents a sexual and interracial conflict, speaking to a transhistorical desire for the Other: the firm and naked form of a black male body, played by Chad L. Coleman, appears to lord it over a smartly clad Caucasian female, fully dressed, with carefully coiffed long blond hair. In the male figure’s enclosed fist is a long strand of pearls, pulled taut, whose other end encircles a slender female neck. The protagonists are set on a revolving podium, turning like the figurines on a music box.
Involved in a dangerous and potentially lethal sex game, in the video as well as in the photographs (as in The Yellow is Cooking, the White is Eating, 1998), in their libidinal exchange the couple defy canonical understandings of sexual — and scopic — power dynamics, coded in both gendered and racial terms. Here, as our traditional victim, Desdemona is not dominated but pleasured; any harm that comes to her is of her own desire. Asphyxiophilia is the scientific name for heightened erotic satisfaction through (near) suffocation. She has asked for strangulation by the privilege of her own pearls. Meanwhile, our would-be protagonist, Othello, portrayed not nude but naked, against the presence of a fully clothed female form, serves as and for the pleasure of his mistress, rather than as a murderer. Desdemona is offered the position of dominance; the fantasy and satisfaction are her own, whilst Othello becomes the object of the gaze, a role traditionally occupied in Western art history and media by the female counterpart.*
Yet, this reversal is also an allusion to the imperial history of race relations which tended toward a feminization and infantilization of the subaltern. Thus, while the nature of the female figure’s clothing — dressed as a businesswoman — also confers economic dominance over the male figure, this aspect of financial or capitalist supremacy can be read as colonial aggression coded in terms of European dominance over African races. Nonetheless, it is one bent on self-annihilation as a source of pleasure, which AES+F locates at the heart of the white European experience: a striving toward and over the Other to the point of their own self-destruction. However, in Othello. Asphyxiophilia and elsewhere in the artists’ oeuvre not only does the subject matter overtly concern racial and gendered Others, but also do the artists understand their viewer as an essential (rather than simply necessary) third interlocutor in a dialectic of alterity. The viewer is also the Other, regarding the Other, as the Other, in a globalized world marked by ever-shifting power dynamics.
Othello. Asphyxiophilia premiered at Despite, a solo exhibition of the artists’ work at the Moscow Museum of Architecture in 2000, moving on to Jean-Hubert Martin’s Lyon Biennale in the same year. This work was also included in the AES+F mid-career retrospective at the Russian State Museum in 2007.
* The most important reference for this scopic regime in terms of AES+F’s work is Laura Mulvey’s celebrated treatise “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema” (Screen, no. 16.3, Fall 1975). As she states, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between the active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on the female form, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (p. 12). Arguably, the black, male body in this work is the one displayed.